My favorite film to play at last year’s New York Asian Film Festival was Sion Sono’s cinematic love-letter/masterpiece Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. It’s a spectacular film, and now that it’s seen a domestic release, y’all have no excuse not to have seen it at least a dozen times already.
One of the things that makes that film so fantastic is its brilliant insanity. It’s uniquely and explicitly Japanese, the sort of film you would expect from that country and couldn’t imagine coming from any other. It was a film that was so crazy that it convinced a critic to say that he would eat his shirt if he saw another film half as crazy at Fantastic Fest 2013. He did, and so he did. It was hard to imagine where Sion Sono would go next. Even his more serious films have over the top elements that make them specifically Sono, and it felt like maybe he’d reached his peak with that film.
And, of course, I was wrong, and I knew I was wrong. This man made Why Don’t You Play in Hell?. He could obviously go further. But, I didn’t know just how wrong I was. Because Tokyo Tribe is so crazy and so ridiculous that it makes Why Don’t You Play In Hell? seem downright sane. I’ve never seen anything come even close.
But sadly (though not unexpectedly), that commitment to craziness comes with a cost.
Director: Sion Sono
If you asked a small child to describe to you what they thought when they heard the phrase “rap battle,” you’d probably get something like Tokyo Tribe. This isn’t a film about a few MCs spittin’ some ill beats in order to prove themselves and ultimately win the respect of their peers; it’s a film about a city ravaged by rap-related crime and the ultimate gang war that breaks out. And much of the dialogue spoken between the characters flows against the thumping beats that back the entire film. It’s a rap musical; it’s a martial arts action film; and it’s a sardonic comedy eviscerating systemic issues with Japanese culture. It’s everything you could possibly want it to be and a whole lot more shoved into just two hours of screentime. (It’s also a manga adaptation. Shocker, that.)
I honestly wonder who will find the music more grating: people who hate rap, or those who love it. It’s pretty obvious why the former would hate it, but the latter is the more interesting thing to discuss. This is a film that clearly has reverence for rap music, but more often than not it makes a pretty poor case for the genre. Rapping is hard. (I should know. My dream is to be a white rapper some day, but I’m terrible at it, and it definitely won’t happen.) I get the impression that a lot of people don’t appreciate the linguistic ability and agility required to really get some funky fresh rhymes going. Unfortunately, those are things the general cast of Tokyo Tribe lack.
When the credits rolled, a couple of Japanese names (written in Japanese letters) were followed by “Young Dais.” I’d been expecting something like that, because I knew right off the bat that Kai, the head of the Peace and Love gang, was actually a rapper. Everyone else had an awkwardness to their rhythm that Kai had on point from start to finish. Everyone else was amateur by comparison. And yeah, of course they were. They’re actors, and he’s a rapper for one of Japan’s various boy bands. It was a good casting choice, but it made me wish that there were more rappers and fewer actors. (There were some others that were clearly rappers as well (I particularly liked the heads of the female gang), but they weren’t crucial to the story and didn’t get much screentime.)
Sion Sono has played up style at the expense of substance in the past, but never so dramatically as here. Tokyo Tribes oozes more character from an average frame than most films in their runtime. Whether it’s the ridiculous and elaborate sets or the bizarre image distortions and lens flares (or a combination of the two), this is a movie that is distinctive and memorable. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny it. You don’t forget that you’ve seen a movie like Tokyo Tribes. You can’t, unless you legitimately have a memory disorder. And if you do… well, you’ll get to see it for the first time all over again, and there’s something magical about that too.
But, of course, form can overtake function, and that undoubtedly happens here. During the film’s final confrontation, one of the characters raps The Point of the movie, and I nearly said (out loud), “Oh! So it’s a film with a message.” It wasn’t funny then, and it’s not funny now, but up until that moment the film wasn’t building up to anything other than a battle. I mean, there’s a “Good vs. Evil” thing in the sense that the bad guys hate Kai’s gang because of the peace and love thing, but that never feels like more than a way to artificially build conflict. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but to pretend at the 11th hour that this was all in service of something? Come on.
The only time when style gets away from the film is in the moments of pathetically poor CGI. There are a few moments where it’s so blatantly fake that the veracity of the moment is ruined. You have to suspend a whole lot of disbelief in order to get into this movie, but there’s still a limit. A tank that looks like something a child would make in a My First AutoCAD class is that limit. And it’s not just that tank, though that’s the most obvious example of it. What’s worse is the blood. In the past, Sion Sono films have been horrifyingly bloody, but the blood was real. It felt like a thing that existed in the film.
My only real problem with Why Don’t You Play in Hell? was that it took the easy way out on occasion (and lower-budget Asian cinema clearly hasn’t figured out digital blood sprays yet (come on guys, Fincher had this shit down in 2007)). But here it’s worse, because even if the initial spray in his previous film was sometimes faked, at least the blood staining the floors and the people after the fact were real. The moment could be forgiven in service of the greater good. Not so here. The film verges on being bloodless, because the red stuff has no feel to it. It’s just an effect lazily thrown onto the screen a few times and then forgotten about.
But those are all relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. People have said that Tokyo Tribes is too much of a good thing, and I don’t think that’s quite accurate. It’s not too much of a good thing, because it’s too many things to be too much of any one of them This film throws the proverbial kitchen sink at the screen and does so with an ungodly amount of technical flair. When you get sick of rapping, it turns into a (fantastic) action movie. The punches may not always land, and the wirework is very clearly wirework, but ya know what? It’s freaking awesome. And then there’s more rapping. And then there’s some rapping and fighting. And it’s all awesome. A plausible argument could be made that there’s just too much movie, that it could have been cut down by 20 or 30 minutes without much narrative impact. But to what end? The content of the film is nothing if not excessive. Why shouldn’t the film itself embody that as well?